The Los Angeles Lakers have reaffirmed themselves as Championship hopefuls after a hard fought victory against the Houston Rockets. With MVP, and dare I say GOAT, level play from their leader LeBron James and former All-Star Rajon Rondo.
The game started very tight and was more of an offensive showcase where each team could not really stop the other. Not a whole lot of defense to be shown. However, most fans do not tune into see great D, so in that respect it was an entertaining first half.
LeBron had his best half of the season scoring 29 of his 36 points, only one point away from matching his best half in terms of scoring of his career. He was scoring from everywhere and busting out all his moves. He was hitting his threes, driving hard to the basket for layups and dunks, and was knocking them down from the mid-range including some impressive turn-around fadeaway jumpers. LeBron was absolutely on fire for the first half scoring just under half of the teams total of 61 points by the end of the second. LBJ and his sidekick Anthony Davis, who also had a good game, kept the Lakers in it throughout the first half. The Lakeshow were able to keep up with the Rockets despite not much production from their bench players, not being able to convert after turnovers, and having 0 fast break points.
Their first half output was matched by the Rockets leader, former MVP, James Harden who scored 21 points. His partner in crime Russell Westbrook, who did not look as out of control as he did in the previous game, also contributed. Houston’s duo helped get their team to a 64 to 61 lead at halftime.
Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel elected for his defense to play Harden straight up which enabled the Beard to get his. Another point of emphasis seemed to be closing hard out on 3 point shooters, which LA did a good job of. However, it opened up wide open lanes to the basket for layups. Vogel’s team did a good job of not fouling though, as Harden – who spends so much time at the line he should pay rent – only shot 7 from there for the game.
After being down 3 at the half, Vogel changed things up. Typically coaches do not want to concede to the opposition and try to force their opponent to adjust to them. But the big starting 5 with Javale McGee at center was just not getting it done against the Rockets microball lineup. So, Vogel sat McGee and went with Markieff Morris to start the second half. This proved to be a good move as Morris, despite only scoring 2 points for the game, did a better job keeping up with the undersized Rockets center, PJ Tucker. Dwight Howard also did not see any minutes for the second game in a row.
Another defensive adjustment made by the Lakers coaching staff was to double team James Harden. This proved effective as it frustrated him as he only scored 12 points total in quarters 3 and 4. These defensive adjustments kept the Rockets to scoring 18 points in the 3rd and and 20 in the fourth. Keeping the offensive juggernaut Rockets under 40 points for a half takes championship level D. The Lakers are going to need to maintain this level of stalwart play at the defensive end. They have shown they are capable of doing it though, as they were reliant on it while they were dominating most of the regular season.
Another highlight of the Lakers’ second half defensive mindset was the block party LeBron threw. Having no real rim protection, LeBron took it upon himself to deny shots at the rim left and right. He totaled 4 blocks in the 3rd quarter including a chase down block at the rim on Austin Rivers to end the quarter.
The Return of Playoff Rondo
The story of the game came down to the play of Rajon Rondo in the fourth. Rondo had been out with injury and did not play at all in the Bubble until this second round series. He did not play all that well in the first two games, but has a history of stepping up his game in the playoffs. Rondo lived up to that reputation becoming the team’s closer and scored 12 of his 21 points in the final stanza. He included some steals for wide open layups for good measure. His leadership, playoff savvy, and improved outside shot, he made 8 out of 11 shots including 3 out of 5 from beyond the arc, helped the team who up until that point struggled to get much of a lead, achieve a double digit victory of 112-102.
During a 4 minute game-time stretch he absolutely took the game over by dishing out dimes and nailing clutch jumpers looking every bit like the top tier point guard he used to be regarded as. I remember when there was an argument to be had about him being the best PG in the league. Those days are long behind him, but he looked every bit like that player last night. Los Angeles doesn’t win without him. Boy are they happy to have him back.
I’ve never been a fan of his. His arrogant and smug attitude has always rubbed me the wrong way but I must admit his swagger is warranted. He is clutch and brings Championship prowess to any team he’s apart of.
I had my doubts about the Lakers in this series. I thought it was a bad matchup for them and that they would struggle against the Rockets. After the game 1 loss it seemed my fears were justified. But after the fourth quarter of game 2 and the entirety of game 3, I feel better about them taking the series. Vogel may not have liked to do it, but his adjustments to match Houston’s small ball have paid off, and the team looks poised to make it the Western Conference Finals. Historically teams who win game 3 of a series end up taking it over 70% of the time. Although, if the Lakers want to make it to the promised land they are going to need more production out of their role players.
What also should be mentioned was the nasty collision between Anthony Davis and Robert Covington in the fourth which saw both players writhing on the floor in pain for a good length of time. During a scramble for the ball, Kyle Kuzma gave Covington a bit of a shove, which led to him colliding with Davis, and being on the receiving end of an elbow to the face. He was bleeding from the nose and left the game and did not return. Davis was favoring his side as he took a blow to the abdomen, but was able to still continue playing despite the discomfort. Covington was able to leave the floor under his own power and did not look whoozy after getting his bell rung. Hopefully for him he passes concussion protocol and is able to be ready to go for game 4.
The Rockets are going to need him and his top notch defense and 3 point shooting if they are to have any chance of taking the series.